When Jason Lee announced his new-look Great Britain squad to work towards Rio 2016 there are few people who would have begrudged Bowdon Hightown’s Kirsty Mackay a quiet moment of personal congratulation for her inclusion. Mackay started out in the previous cycle but her London 2012 ambitions were cut cruelly short by a serious injury:
“I had a lot of back pain which was treated as a muscular injury. I did all the rehab but it didn’t get any better. I had a scan and found that I had a new fracture on my L5 vertebrae and an old fracture on the R5 vertebrae.” she adds: “That meant I wasn’t able to do anything for three months. I came back and did more rehab but as soon as I got back into the gym and tried to practice kicking it went again, so it was back to square one. I lost all my muscle and all my speed and I’ve only recently felt like I’m close to my best again.”
Battling with Abi Walker, Beth Storry and Maddie Hinch for a place in the squad for a home Olympics should have been one of the most exciting experiences of Mackay’s hockey career, but instead due to her 18 month injury lay off it turned into a nightmare:
“I felt very lonely at times. I was still part time in the central programme but I was coming down, doing my rehab and then going again. I didn’t feel part of the squad and to be honest I didn’t want to be around them very much. I was in a difficult place. They were building to the Olympics whilst I didn’t know if I’d play again. It was a really dark time for me.”
Despite the seemingly bleak outlook for the Blackpool born goalkeeper she found great support from one of her teammates, Anne Panter, who herself had gone through a similar experience:
“She helped me a lot. She knew how difficult it was and how frustrated I was getting but she kept encouraging me and kept telling me it’d all click into place. She helped me to set myself small goals rather than aiming for when I’d be back on the pitch, it helped me so much.”
As well as Panter, Mackay had unstinting support from the team physiotherapist, Emma Batchelor as well as her family and her boyfriend: “There were times I was so down, I would cry at the end of a training session. They were all so understanding and patient with me. I couldn’t have come back without them.”
Having overcome such a major setback, the 26-year-old has found a new outlook on her approach to hockey: “It’s made me stronger and it’s made me much more appreciative of the opportunities I’m given.” she continues “You don’t know what’s round the corner. I could get injured again tomorrow so today; whilst I’m fit I’ll give everything 100% and enjoy playing as much as I can.”
Hockey has not been all negative for the Bowdon Hightown No.1. She is rightly very proud of her first England cap, earned in the Investec Series in South Africa in January. Not only was it the culmination of a long, hard road back to full fitness, there was also a more light-hearted monkey off her back when she made that elusive debut:
“I already had some GB caps, but after injury I didn’t think I would make it back into the team. My team mates at Hightown used to slate me because Sally Walton had more England caps in goal than I did! It was great to finally overtake her!” Joking aside, she adds “When I got told I was playing I had a real mix of emotions: Relief, excitement, nerves but also, the sense it was an opportunity to repay the faith shown in me and to prove I was someone that could play international level.”
Now, having proved both her fitness and her ability, Mackay is able to enjoy an entirely different experience in her second stint in the central programme. She mentions the camaraderie amongst the squad as a highlight: “We all get on really well as a group. Training, playing and socialising together is great and allows us to get to know each other and understand each other on and off the pitch. I think that gives us an advantage over other teams as they don’t seem to have that closeness that we do.” As well as the bond throughout the squad, Mackay also seems to have formed quite the double act with fellow goalkeeper, Maddie Hinch: “We’re both really laid back and like a laugh. Personally I don’t like to be too serious because I find it makes me perform worse, so I like to be around more relaxed people, which Maddie definitely is.”
Despite her obvious delight at being in the thick of the international set up, Mackay’s ambition is clear to see, she is certainly not just there to make up the numbers:
“Obviously I’m the goalkeeper who isn’t playing at the minute because Maddie’s playing so well, but there’s a long cycle ahead. I want to gain as much experience as I can and keep improving so I can force my way into the team and ultimately be the No.1 for Rio 2016.”
Competition between Mackay, Hinch and Scotland’s Amy Gibson is sure to be fierce as they contest the No.1 jersey in the lead up to the next Olympics. One thing is for certain, whatever the outcome, it is great to see Kirsty Mackay back on the field and firing on all cylinders. No one could argue with that.
The Top of the D would like to thank Kirsty Mackay for her time and patience in conducting this interview.